‘A Piece of History': NPS to Celebrate Frederick Douglass' 200th Birthday at Historic Home

What to Know

  • This weekend, the National Park Service will kick off a yearlong celebration for the 200th anniversary of Douglass' birth.
  • Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1818. He celebrated his birthday on Feb. 14.
  • The bicentennial events will culminate on Feb. 20, 2019, the 124th anniversary of Douglass' death.

Perched atop a hill in Southeast Washington, with the U.S. Capitol Building within sight, sits the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. 

For 17 years, Douglass walked the halls of Cedar Hill, his home in the city. 

This weekend, visitors to the house will be able to walk those same halls as the National Park Service kicks off a yearlong celebration of the 200th anniversary of Douglass' birth.   

Guests will get to hear from Douglass' third great-grandson, see original photography equipment from the era and listen to historic African-American spirituals. 

Children in attendance can learn about the drill and discipline a Civil War soldier needed to "enlist," a process Douglass' two sons experienced.

Visitors can even explore the neighborhood Douglass once called home with a guided tour. 

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia has already seen an increase in visitors interested in learning more about the famous orator, said Vince Vaise, the chief of visitor services for the National Park Service. 

"The nice thing about a bicentennial is it wakes people up from their historical amnesia," Vaise said. 

"It's a Piece of History"

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, in 1818. 

The abolitionist never knew the day of his birth, but he chose to celebrate it on Valentine's Day because of a memory of his mother, Harriet Bailey, bringing him a cake on that day. 

"Her visits to me there were few in number, brief in duration and mostly made in the night,' Douglass wrote in "My Bondage and My Freedom."

"The pains she took, and the toil she endured, to see me, tells me that a true mother's heart was hers," he wrote. 

Douglass and his mother lived on separate plantations. He recalled only seeing her a few times before her death.  

Douglass fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman, and then planned his escape. With Murray's help, Douglass was able to purchase a train ticket north in 1838. 

"She was a rock throughout his life," Vaise said. 

The couple eventually settled in Massachusetts, where they adopted the last name Douglass. 

Douglass became an orator and a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement, telling the story of his bondage in speeches and autobiographies. 

In 1877, he and his wife moved to Cedar Hill, a large two-story home on top of a 50-foot hill. The home was just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, but offered the peace and quiet of a country home. 

The home also served as a place for Douglass' famous friends to meet and socialize. 

"It's a piece of history and memorial all at the same time," Vaise said. "It's right up there with the Washington, the Jefferson. This is where the history happened." 

During his time at Cedar Hill, Douglass served as a U.S. marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. He also was the U.S. minister and counsul general to Haiti, a post known today as U.S. ambassador. His love for the country can be seen in the palm tree-print wallpaper lining the walls of the home. 

Bicentennial Weekend Will Bring History to Life

Cedar Hill will be the epicenter of the National Park Service's bicentennial celebration of Douglass' life.

On Feb. 17 and 18, guests can explore the historic home, watch re-enactors and dance to musical performances. 

The Anacostia Arts Center will serve as a satellite location, hosting a number of kid-friendly activities. There will be a puppet show and a historic photo studio, where children can take a photo like Douglass.

Photography in the 19th century was an elaborate process, especially when the subject had a darker complexion. Douglass would bring in the very best photographers to capture his image. 

At the historic photo studio, visitors will see what a photo session was like and they'll even get to use props to have their own photo taken. 

"There was a reason why he was the most photographed African American of the century," Vaise said.

Vaise says Douglass used photography in an attempt to obliterate the stereotypes of African Americans that persisted at the time. Portraits of a Douglass can be seen throughout Cedar Hill. In one photo, he's dressed in a dark suit, with only the right side of his face and graying hair visible. In another, Douglass stands among a group of prominent figures. Douglass, the only African American in the photo, is front and center. 

The celebration will not end after Douglass' birthday. A number of events will be held on the grounds of the historic home throughout the year.

The bicentennial events will culminate on Feb. 20, 2019, the 124th anniversary of Douglass' death.

"We're going to define the year," Vaise said. "A year in the life of Douglass."

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